It’s 7am in Bhutan’s Upper Paro Valley, and I am high – literally. My guide Arya Dew and I have been hiking since before sunrise to avoid the heat of the day. When you’re spending four hours climbing a dizzyingly steep trail into the Eastern Himalayas, at a pace set by a man who has done this more than 100 times, every moment of shade counts. We had the option of plying the trail on horseback, but the arduousness of the day seems to be a big part of the spirituality of this particular pilgrimage.
Our destination, the Paro Taktsang monastery (also known as Tiger’s Nest) clings to cliffs “like a gecko”, as the locals like to say, its four temple buildings enveloping a cave where Guru Rinpoche supposedly alighted. It’s one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world, yet there are few other souls walking the vertiginous pine-laced path with us.
Arya and I stop on a rocky pass, a slash of steep valley the only thing separating us from Tiger’s Nest on the opposite cliff. We sip water on benches ringed with dar cho – prayer flags ubiquitous in Himalayan Buddhism, their five colours representing air, earth, fire, water and sky – the sunlit mountains of the vast Himalayan range resounding with the sound of silence. The kingdom is known by Bhutanese as Druk Yul, “land of the thunder dragon”. Although given the relative absence of travellers, and the gentle nature of softly spoken locals, it could well be renamed the “land of peace and whispers”.
For more than a thousand years, this tiny realm, wedged into mountainous folds between two giants, India and China, survived in splendid isolation. There were no roads, no electricity, no motor vehicles, no telephones and no postal service until the 1960s; citizens were not granted access to television until 1999, making it the last country on the planet to do so.
It remained closed off from the outside world – both by geography and deliberate policy – until 1974, when foreign tourists were officially welcomed. Two years earlier when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the throne, Bhutan suffered from some of the highest poverty, illiteracy and infant-mortality rates in the world – a legacy of the isolation. Wangchuck’s goal for opening the country was not only to improve living standards but to redefine the process of development: the “wealth” of his nation would not be measured by economic growth, but instead by a concept known as Gross National Happiness.
The approach is guided by four pillars – sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation and good governance – and modelled on economic intangibles such as time spent with family, environmental cleanliness and mental illness, or the absence thereof.
More than 40 years later, Bhutan has pulled itself out of abject poverty without exploiting its natural resources. Nearly three-quarters of the country is still forested, with more than 25 per cent designated as national parks and protected areas – among the highest percentages in the world. Plastic bags are not allowed in Bhutan, and the government recently announced its intention to become the world’s first 100 per cent organic-farming nation. Rates of illiteracy and infant mortality have fallen dramatically, and the economy is booming. Tourism is growing, too, though strict limits on new construction and a daily tax of up to US$250 a visitor mean that the country avoids the tourist hoards that flock to neighbouring regions.
Before our trek to Paro Taktsang, I check in to the beautiful 29-room Como Uma Paro hotel, perched on a hill and designed with flared roofs and painted frescoes to resemble the fortress-like temples (dzongs) that dot the countryside. I have views of the international airport’s runway, which generally would be a reason not to stay. But there’s a maximum of six flights in and out each day – all while the sun is up. The landing requires dodging and weaving skills that few pilots in the world possess – in fact, only eight have the licence to do so.
I press my nose to the glass to watch a Drukair plane expertly navigate 5400-metre peaks shrouded in mist, the wings just metres from hillside foliage. I only exhale when its wheels touch down on the runway, set some 2.5 kilometres above sea level. Then, with my steep pre-dawn climb in mind, I locate the hotel’s restaurant and promptly order as much food as I can. I begin with the national dish, ema datshi, a mix of smoky chilli peppers and melted yak milk cheese. There are two types of white rice, one with corn and the other with black beans. There’s stir-fried cabbage, wedges of potato with a buzzy chilli paste on the side, and a fragrant platter of momo (dumplings) stuffed with wild mushrooms and more cheese. There’s also a ceramic pot of indigenous firewater called ara, a throat-numbing beverage made from rice, maize, millet or wheat.
An hour’s drive from Paro is Thimphu, one of the world’s only capital cities where there are no traffic lights; the few cars that pass by are orchestrated by a man in a tight uniform with shiny gold buttons. We drive around his colourful rotunda on the way to Tashichho Dzong, or the Fortress of Glorious Religion.
First constructed in 1216 AD, the sprawling complex of whitewashed buildings with tiered golden roofs was rebuilt in 1902 after a fire in 1771 and an earthquake in 1897; when Thimphu became the capital in 1961 it was renovated again. It’s still home to the throne room and offices of the handsome young king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the first son of Jigme Singye Wangchuck. It’s also a working seat of government for the secretariat and various ministries, which means the building’s doors don’t open to tourists until workers depart for the day, usually around 5:30pm. A handful of government officials linger when we arrive, all dressed in traditional kira (for women) and gho for men. (Later that day at my hotel, the Taj Tashi Thimphu, a kira is laid out on my bed for me to wear to dinner.) For most locals over 35, these striking outfits are standard uniform.
Today, Arya’s consists of a grey-and-white checked robe, belted at the waist, with knee-high black socks and black shoes. He wore the same impractical shoes to scale Tiger’s Nest, and slips them on again when we attempt an equally arduous climb to Chagri Dorjeden, a working meditation centre set high on a hill outside Thimphu.
It’s another sweaty but spectacular walk through a forest of rhododendrons – Bhutan is home to more than 50 species – cypress, orchids and oak, with prayer flags and the occasional statue of Buddha along the way. We’re greeted by monks in maroon robes, circumambulating a hall, twirling prayer wheels as they go. Bhutan is widely regarded as the last stronghold of Vajrayana Buddhism, introduced by Indian tantric master Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th century.
The tantric belief that carnal relations can be the gateway to enlightenment still abounds, with many Bhutanese decorating houses, shopfronts and temples with enormous painted phalluses, often wrapped in a jaunty bow. Surprisingly there are none at Chagri Dorjeden, despite the fact that the monastery is still a major Buddhist teaching and retreat centre. I do spot phallic imagery at Thimphu’s Memorial Chorten, a large Tibetan-style stupa with golden spires and bells that is, for many Bhutanese, the focus of daily worship. The chorten also depicts a number of larger than life images of wrathful deities with their female consorts, in all manner of explicit sexual poses. But none of the locals seem to notice, content in their daily ritual that alternates between circumambulation and sun worship.
It’s only 75 kilometres from Thimphu to Punakha, but it takes us three hours along the country’s sole highway, much of it under construction. The road curves and winds through silvery spruce forests and gorges roaring with waterfalls. We pass long-eyelashed cows, who have right of way here; Nepalese road workers squatting by fires; women in kira dresses loaded with firewood; and square farmhouses with their painted wood lintels.
Then there are the road signs: “Speed Thrills, But Kills”, rather ironic given our sub-20km/hr pace, and “Don’t gossip, let him drive!” We stop briefly at the high Dochula Pass, a circular arrangement of 108 white chortens facing a line of snow-capped peaks.
From here, the road descends in hairpins through forests of towering blue pine to the lush valley of Punakha. The first thing you see of the onetime capital is its grand dzong, set at the confluence of the Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers and known as the Palace of Great Happiness – unsurprisingly, it was a popular choice for the 2011 wedding of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck to Queen Jetsun Pema. It’s the second oldest of its kind in the country, built in 1637 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.
There’s an atmosphere of calm throughout the complex, an absence of music, voices or machinery: a couple in kira and gho sit on a bench under the gnarly branches of a banyan tree; Arya turns prayer wheels that are worn smooth thanks to years of hands; and dragonflies skim over small puddles of water.
Earlier that day we had walked through rice fields to visit the monastery of Chimi Lhakhang, which locals know as the Divine Fertility Temple. Phalluses are painted in bright colours all over the walls of the village houses, and there are shops selling carvings in every size, shape and colour. The monastery was built in memory of a 15th-century lama called Drukpa Kunley, better known as the Divine Madman. Legend has it that Kunley travelled the countryside, subduing evil demons and granting enlightenment to young maidens with the magical powers of his “flaming thunderbolt”.
The calm returns when we arrive at our luxurious lodge, Como Uma Punakha, modelled on a dzong, surrounded by fields of rice. The minimalist interiors are complemented by Bhutanese artworks and hand-knotted rugs. The chef sources the majority of produce from local farmers. I’m served a salad of fern tips, feta, winter melon and coriander, scattered with flaked chilli. It’s fresh, vibrant and like nothing else I’ve ever experienced – a bit like Bhutan on a plate, really.